Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Is It Time to Panic About Civics and History Education?

by Jeff Polet

This panic-inducing headline from a recent story in the NYTimes found analogues in most stories that reported on the recent release of national civics and history tests administered to 8th graders.

An accompanying statement released by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona chalked up the decline to the ways in which the pandemic affected student learning in general; and — not letting an opportunity go to waste — insisted that “Today’s data confirm the significant impact the prior Administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic has had on our children’s progress and academic wellbeing.“ Then this concluding piece of hortatory: “We must repair the damage done by Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic – and we will.” Read the statement for yourself and its arguments as to whom is largely responsible for the closing of our schools and see if you agree. Personally, I think the Secretary displays some real chutzpah here as his predecessor in the Trump administration was an early and forceful advocate for re-opening the schools, for which she was roundly criticized and actively opposed by – among others — the teacher’s unions.

That’s not really the point, however. The question is not whether the pandemic-related shutdowns negatively affected student learning — the data we have available, as well as common sense, support that claim — nor over who is mainly responsible (voters can sort that out), but whether the shutdowns are the best possible explanation for the decline. When one considers that the most recent scores of the history test were only one point lower than those in 1994 and the civics test score was identical to that administered in 1998, it would be difficult to support the claim that the pandemic is the main cause of the decline that has occurred.

Nor should we allow ourselves to be too distracted by the raw scores. If we cast the numbers on a typical grading scale — that is, the number of actual correct answers as a percentage of total questions — then the history test averages dropped between 2018 and 2022 from 53.4% to 51.6%, and the civics test from 51% to 50%. I don’t think these are statistically significant declines, except that they point out an obvious fact: our nation’s students have, since testing began, never not had a failing grade in history and civics. If one wants to start assigning blame for this state of affairs, one should probably start with the schools themselves. After all, according to the report, students in private Catholic schools score significantly higher than their public counterparts, and those schools witnessed no decline in test scores. Neither can one blame the so-called school wars for the results, as the failing grades long preceded those wars.

Instead, it might prove useful to bypass the headlines and pore through the (sparse) data to look at the variables that seem to affect student performance the most. Not surprisingly, the most important variable seems to be the level of education of the student’s parents.

Then, too, one might want to take a look at the tests themselves. They are a combination of factual questions, often strangely constructed and having more than one correct answer, even though they’d have you believe there’s only one, and open-ended opinion questions that would require human graders, and thus are more subjective in interpretation. Take, for example, the first question: “What were European explorers such as Henry Hudson looking for when they sailed the coast and rivers of North America in the 1600s?” Students are given these four choices: “A water trade route to Asia; A land route to South America; Land to use for sugar plantations; religious freedom.” The test-taker is immediately thrown off by the ambiguous use of “such as” in the question. Are we to answer what Henry Hudson in particular was looking for, or other explorers such as Henry Hudson? Are we to assume that all European explorers made that risky journey for exactly the same reasons? Are we to assume that all of them made the journey for one reason and one reason alone? Anyone who thinks those things has already failed a basic understanding of America’s admittedly complex history. It’s a badly constructed question, and 8th graders, of all people, can hardly be blamed for not getting it “right.” When I took this test I spent five minutes looking at this question in bewilderment, so imagine what it would be like to be a 13-year old operating under time pressures. I wouldn’t hold it against a single kid who got a “wrong” answer.

It is also worthwhile to break down the results by area. The history test divides results into four “themes”: democracy, culture, technology, and world role. The only declining score since the test’s inception is in “technology.” The other three themes have shown improvement since the test was first given, although they did decline since the last iteration. Not knowing exactly what falls under the technology rubric — and one of the civics questions involves knowing how to use search engines — I’m not convinced that should necessarily be cause for alarm.

A laser-like focusing on the current results distracts us from the big picture: we haven’t been good at teaching American history or civics for a long time, and we’re not getting any better at it. The test data indicate a further bifurcating of the population between the roughly 15%(!) of our students who are at proficiency level or above, and everyone else. That number has enormous implications that relate to what is happening in higher education in particular and in our society in general. Students whose parents graduated from college are about 4 times more likely to be at proficiency or above than are those whose parents had no schooling after high school, and about 7 times more likely than students whose parents didn’t finish high school.

Despite our best and long-standing hopes that public schools can correct for variations in parenting, it would seem that the 170 year effort has spent itself. Parents matter, which is why the language of “equality of opportunity” has a certain hollowness to it. To create a world where opportunity is fully equal one would have to get rid of parents. They’re not likely to give up their children easily.

Still, society as a whole, particularly a democratic one, can’t function well without a citizenry that understands the basics about how its government actually works and has a good grasp of its own history. Clearly there is much work to be done on this front, and trusting that the schools alone can perform this task is counter-indicated by these studies. What will be required is a rebuilding of all the institutions of civil society in accordance with the principles built into our system, and that means foundations such as ours will have a key role.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What practical solutions might there be to raise these test scores? Why is it that our efforts to raise these scores over the last 30 years have consistently failed?
  2. Put together a list of “basics” — the facts of history and civics that you think every American should know — and compare it to lists that others make. How much overlap is there? How would you resolve disagreements over what should be included and excluded?
  3. The data indicated significant differences in results by race as well. How might you explain that?

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